Sripur, Bangladesh: A huge fire at a Bangladeshi factory where workers were making clothes for labels such as Gap and H&M has killed seven people in the latest disaster to blight the country’s garment industry.
Firefighters battled through the night to douse the flames at the Aswad Knit Composite factory at Sripur, on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka. Parts of the two-storey building were still smouldering early Wednesday.
Police said that the fire was so intense that most of the bodies that have been recovered were too badly burned to be identified.
Workers said the blaze, which broke out on Tuesday evening, appeared to have been started by a malfunctioning knitting machine which had caught fire on a number of previous occasions.
An AFP correspondent at the scene found work order books containing names of the factory’s clients in September, which included US brand Gap, British retailer Next, Swedish fashion label H&M, Australia’s Target and French supermarket Carrefour.
A fabric swatch book marked with Walmart’s brand George and labels were also seen.
Revising an earlier death toll which put the number of dead at nine, local police chief Amir Hussain said seven bodies had been recovered after a thorough search of the building.
“Two bodies have been identified and handed over to their relatives. Five other bodies were charred beyond recognition,” he said.
Hussain said that the fire was now “under control” although parts of the building were still smouldering.
A fire at the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka killed 111 workers last November, the country’s worst such incident.
Industrial accidents are common in the country, where the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory bloc in April killed 1,129 people in the nation’s worst industrial disaster.
Since then, protests over poor wages, benefits and working conditions have shaken the sector, the country’s economic mainstay.
Although the names of the victims in the latest fire have yet to be released, relatives who had gathered at the factory in Gazipur district feared the worst.
Sumi Akter, 22, said she suspected that her husband Bulbul Islam was among the dead.
“He called me by phone last night and said he would be back home in an hour. But after the fire I heard nothing from him,” she said.
Hossain said that most of the 3,000 people who work at the factory had left before the fire started.
Local fire service chief M. Akteruzzaman said firefighters had struggled to bring the flames under control.
“There is an acute shortage of water in the area, which makes the job to control the fire very difficult,” he said.
Fire service director Mahbubur Rahman said the blaze spread because emergency services took more than an hour to reach the site.
“There is no fire station within a 3O kilometre radius of the factory,” he said.
Safety standards at Bangladesh’s 4,500 garment factories, where workers toil for 10-12 hours a day for a monthly minimum wage of $38 (Dhxxx), are notoriously lax and fires are a common problem.
Mohammad Abu Saan, who works at the factory in Sripur, said that the fire had started when a knitting machine burst into flames on the factory floor and then spread to a warehouse.
“There have been quite a few small fires in the machine recently. But we managed to douse them. This time it was big,” he said.
Earlier police and fire officials said the blaze started in a boiler.
Thousands of Bangladesh garment workers walked off the job last month, blocking roads and attacking factories outside the capital and demanding a $100 minimum monthly wage.
Bangladesh is the world’s second largest garment manufacturer after China, with the bulk of its $21.5 billion annual shipments going to top Western retailers such as Walmart, H&M and Inditex.
But the vast majority of the impoverished nation’s three million workers earn a basic monthly wage of 3,000 taka ($38) — among the lowest in the world — following a tripartite deal between unions, the government and manufacturers in August 2010.
Pope Francis has said the wages are akin to “slave labour”.